Originally created 04/27/04

Officers rethink seat belt policies



Col. Gary Powell has never second-guessed his decision to wear a seat belt during a 1986 police pursuit, even though the belt strap sliced his ear when he wrecked.

"It cut my ear, but it kept me from going through the windshield," said Col. Powell, of the Richmond County Sheriff's Office. "The only thing that saved me was the seat belt."

In Georgia, law enforcement personnel are not required to click it. But two accidents in the past week by unrestrained officers have led some to rethink that.

In Burke County, Deputy Mark Miller was thrown from his patrol car and critically injured Saturday when he lost control and was struck by a pickup. He was unrestrained and suffered serious head injuries as a result. The 30-year-old officer remained in critical condition Monday night at Medical College of Georgia Hospital.

Six days before that, on April 18, Thomson police Officer Christopher Bailey was unbelted when he crashed into a power pole, suffered head injuries and destroyed his cruiser. The officer was taken by ambulance to MCG, where he was treated for minor injuries.

"I bet you he'll wear it next time," Thomson Police Chief John Hathaway said Monday. "The city has a policy about wearing a seat belt."

Though Georgia law doesn't require seat belt use by police, most agencies have policies that do, including the Georgia State Patrol and the sheriff's offices in Richmond and Columbia counties. In Richmond County, officers can be denied workers' compensation claims if they wreck while unrestrained.

Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey said his agency had a policy, but he stopped enforcing it after learning that the Georgia law excludes officers. He is reconsidering after Deputy Miller's wreck, which remains under investigation by the Georgia State Patrol.

"I think after (other deputies) see what happened to Deputy Miller, they will probably wear them," he said.

The sheriff said some officers might not wear seat belts because it feels cramped against their walkie talkie, handcuffs and baton.

"It's bulky," he said.

Col. Powell said the only reason he could see for an officer to drive unrestrained is if he is preparing to chase a suspect on foot.

"They might unsnap it while they are slowing down," he said.

Dr. Bruce Janiak, who treats accident victims at MCG, said being thrown from the vehicle is the worst thing that can happen to an unrestrained driver.

"You can hit a tree, or your car can roll over you," he said.

A restrained driver is also prevented from hitting the windshield and suffering life-threatening injuries to the neck, heart and lungs, he said.

The physician has heard some lame arguments against seat belts.

He compares it to jumping out of a plane without a parachute "because you heard someone survived without one."

Police officers can't chase a suspect if they aren't in control, he said. Seat belts help keep officers in front of the steering wheel while traveling at high speeds.

"Without the seat belt, you could find yourself in the passenger seat and the car going 60 mph," Dr. Janiak said.

"They can't help us if they are injured."

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 823-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.

NO belt required

Georgia law excuses these people from wearing seat belts:

  • A person making frequent deliveries driving under 15 mph
  • A person approved by a doctor not to wear a seat belt for medical reasons
  • A driver operating a passenger vehicle in reverse
  • Someone in a vehicle made before 1965
  • Anyone in a vehicle not required to have seat belts under federal law
  • A postal carrier
  • A newspaper delivery person
  • Someone in a passenger vehicle performing an emergency service